Visiting Japan’s ancient temples and shrines is one of the top five experiences to have on tour in Japan. And while you can expect to be awed by the architecture and history of this important part of Japanese culture, you can also count on being delighted by the unexpected.
Secret tunnels, sacred deer, and a 60-ton wooden gate that mysteriously floats on the sea are all part of the enjoyment you’ll discover when visiting the famous temples of Japan. There’s plenty of them, too. How many temples are there in Japan? Including shrines, there are well over 150,000. To help you navigate the must-see temples in Japan, read on for seven that should be on your bucket list of top attractions in Japan.
The short answer is that the temples in Japan serve the Buddhist religion and shrines serve the Shinto religion. (It’s not uncommon for Japanese people to practice both Buddhism and Shintoism.) And while there are complex differences between Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, there are also some easy clues to help you distinguish between the two.
Buddhist temples: A Buddha statue, pagodas, and the smell of incense are sure signs you’re in a temple.
Shinto shrines: A large, red torii gate, the portal under which you pass from the world to holy ground, indicates you are at a shrine.
Navigating the customs of a country you’re unfamiliar with can be tricky, especially when it comes to religious sites. But that shouldn’t keep you from experiencing one of the most memorable and profound aspects of your trip to Japan: its historic temples and shrines. Common sense and respect go a long way, as does paying attention to the helpful, instructive signs you’ll find at most sites. As on every Go Ahead Tour to Japan, your expert local guide will help you every step of the way through these sacred spaces.
No matter your religious background or beliefs, you should feel welcome to participate in the worship rituals at Japanese shrines and temples. Don’t worry if you feel a little shy about giving it a go. Even Japanese people don’t always follow a strict routine. And most importantly, just a little effort will give you a glimpse into centuries-old traditions, only enriching your visit to Japan.
One important rule in both shrines and temples is that a bell is only rung before praying, never after (unless you want to invite bad luck!).
Praying at a Shinto shrine:
Praying at a Buddhist temple:
No trip to Japan is complete without a visit to Tokyo’s oldest Buddhist temple—which also happens to be a favorite of both locals and visitors. The iconic destination is included on all our guided Japan tours. Also known as Asakusa Kannon Temple, the colorful Senso-ji was originally built in 628 A.D., but has been destroyed multiple times, most recently in WWII. The beautiful temple you see today was rebuilt in 1958 and stands as a symbol of peace and rebirth.
Instantly recognizable by the enormous red paper lantern you pass under when entering through the outer Thunder Gate, the temple is actually a complex of gates and buildings, each seemingly more beautiful than the last. You’ll get a quick introduction to Japanese culture and commerce as you stroll the centuries-old Nakamise Shopping Arcade, laid out between the temple’s outer and second gate. It’s a great place to try some local takeaway foods or pick up a handmade souvenir.
“I absolutely loved Senso-Ji temple and would recommend travelers make a donation to the shrine to get their fortune (an o-mikuji),” said staffer Daniel, who lived in Tokyo for several years. “Senso-Ji is a popular enough temple where the o-mikuji will be in English, as well as Japanese. O-mikuji range from having ‘daikichi,’ which means ‘great blessing,’ to ‘daikyo,’ which means ‘big curse’.” Oh, and if you happen to get that “big curse” fortune, feel free to purchase another o-mikuji to cancel it out.
Did you know? Fishermen found a statue of Kannon (the goddess of mercy) in their fishing net in 628 A.D. The statue has been locked away since 645 A.D. in a miniature temple inside Senso-ji Temple and seen by no one, including temple priests.
Perhaps the most fascinating of all of Japan’s temples, Myouryuji Temple was constructed as stealthily as the ninjas from which it gets its nickname: the Ninja Temple. In reality, the temple never had any association with ninjas. Rather, “it is known as Ninja Temple due to its numerous defenses against intruders and enemies,” said staffer Valentina.
When it was built in 1643, government regulations forbade any building from serving as a military structure or having more than three stories. The local rulers circumvented those rules by disguising the temple’s military purpose. Outwardly innocent-looking and appearing to have only two stories, there are actually four stories inside, along with a network of secret rooms, trap doors, hidden tunnels, and even a watchtower.
The mysteries of Myouryuji continue to this day. Guided tours are only given in Japanese; visitors must rely on a printed pamphlet with pictures and translated text for information. Consider it part of the intrigue!
At Myouryuji, as at all the famous temples in Japan, staffer Amanda recommends that you “take your time walking around the grounds and connecting with the nature and art around you. Many areas were meant to be places for you to pause and reflect.”
Did you know? Rumor has it that the temple houses a secret passageway leading to Kanazawa Castle, so the local rulers could be alerted in the event of an attack on the temple.
Prepare to have your eyes deceived when you visit Itsukushima Shrine at high tide. Only then does the massive, six-pillar torii gate seem to float on the Seto Inland Sea. It’s not until the tide recedes that you’ll see your eyes have been fooled. At low tide, you can walk out to the gate, marvel at its mystery up close, and even place a coin in the cracks of the wood. While the gate is set in the sea, the shrine (one of Shintoism’s holy places since the 6th century) is located on nearby Miyajima Island.
“I loved visiting Itsukushima Shrine because the shrine changes over the day via the tides,” said staffer Daniel, who lived in Tokyo for several years. “Come multiple times a day to see the ways that the landscape changes with the tides. Setting up a camera with a time-lapse is a great way to get an amazing shot of the temple.”
On our Grand Tour of Japan, you’ll take a short ferry ride to Miyajima Island to view the 12th-century, UNESCO-listed Itsukushima Shrine.
Did you know? The floating torii gate weighs 60 tons and is over 50 feet tall. The 600 year-old Camphor trees that make up its six pillars are not buried in, but rest on, the seabed. Their tremendous weight allows them to remain upright.
With more than 2,000 temples and shrines in Kyoto, this beautiful city is the spiritual heart of Japan. But unless you’ve got a lifetime... or two... to explore them all, the best strategy is to concentrate on its most celebrated sites. Ryoanji Temple (Temple of the Dragon at Peace) in northern Kyoto, which like many temples was originally built as a residence, is one not to be missed. The star of the show here is its celebrated rock garden.
“This is one of the most famous rock gardens (which is an interesting oxymoron) in Japan, or dry landscape,” said staffer Giulia. “There are no trees or plants in this garden, only rocks! The interesting fun fact about it is that from any point of view, the spectator can’t see all the rocks at once, but 14 at most. Legend says that the viewer will be able to see all its 15 rocks only once he reaches the Enlightenment.”
After you’re finished contemplating the mysteries of the rock garden, take time to stroll through the traditional Japanese gardens and around Kyoyochi Pond. The pond was originally used for pleasure boating when Ryoanji Temple was the home of an aristocrat.
You can visit Ryoanji Temple as part of our Japan Adventure: Kyoto, the Japanese Alps & Tokyo tour or add it to any Japan trip as a great free time activity.
Did you know?
In one of Ryoanji’s gardens, you’ll find a stone trough with a continuous flow of water for ritual purification. What you won’t find is a dipper to draw water for cleansing your hands and face, a sign that the water is only meant for purification of the soul.
Think big when it comes to Todaiji Temple, one of the most famous temples in Japan. Everything here seems supersized. The bronze Buddha reaches nearly 50 feet tall. Its home, the Great Buddha Hall, was recognized as the largest wooden structure in the world. As for its infamy, the landmark temple has been destroyed by fire several times since its construction in 752 A.D., an earthquake once knocked Buddha’s head off, and the temple’s too-great political power caused the country’s capital to be moved from Nara. While the temple and Buddha were restored to their full glory, Nara never regained its position as the center of Japan’s government.
There’s plenty to explore beyond the breathtaking scale of the Great Buddha and Great Buddha Hall. The temple grounds and gardens are beautiful. “In the temple courtyard, deer graze freely because they are considered divine messengers in the Shinto religion,” said staffer Valentina. “You can buy sembei (Japanese cookies) to feed the deer and it’s not unusual for them to bow to thank you for offering it to them.”
In addition to buying sembei for the deer, you can also purchase an o-mamori for yourself. “All temples sell o-mamori, which are charms that have special blessings,” said staffer Daniel. “While most temples will have standard blessings like good health, wealth, and travel safety, some shrines and temples will have special meanings or unique blessings. My favorite o-mamori was one I got from Kosenji Temple in Kustatsu, Gunma. The o-mamori reads 遅咲, which translates to ‘slow bloomer.’ It is for those who either have yet to bloom or who bloomed too early and wish to bloom again! They make amazing souvenirs and help support local temples!”
Did you know? There is an opening in one of the temple’s pillars that equals the size of one of the Great Buddha’s nostrils. Legend has it that you will be granted Enlightenment in the next life… if you can squeeze through the opening.
Explore Todaiji Temple in the spring, along with Japan’s famous cherry blossoms, on our guided Cherry Blossoms in Japan: Tokyo to Kyoto tour.
In a country that is visually stunning, this is the site that will take your breath away. Kinkaku-ji, more famously known as the Golden Pavilion for its gold-leaf façade, is perhaps one of the most famous temples in Japan. It’s certainly the most captivating. You’ll understand the instant you lay eyes on it. With a reflecting pond ready to capture the play of light from the temple’s glittering, gold foil-covered upper floors, every photo you take will be Instagram worthy.
You can enhance the incredible visual experience by tapping into your unconscious mind during a guided Zen meditation session, included on all our tours of Kinkaku-ji. When your local guide leads you through the interior of the temple, pay attention to the different architectural styles on each floor and the impressive collection of Buddha relics. After the tour, stop for a cup of matcha in the tea garden. Kyoto is famous for its matcha!
“While the golden dome of the pavilion sparkles against the brilliant red leaves of fall or the snows of winter, I found the greens of summer just as magical and incredibly peaceful,” said traveler Bob. “When it comes down to it, any time of year is the perfect time to visit Kyoto and Kinkaku-ji Temple.”
Did you know? In the early hours of July 2, 1950, Kinkaku-ji Temple was burnt to the ground by a 21-year-old “mad monk,” who some say was bewitched by the temple’s beauty. The temple you see today was rebuilt in 1955.
One of Japan’s most sacred (and photographed) sites, Kasuga-taisha Shrine is notable for the many gods enshrined here, and the thousands of stone and bronze lanterns that flank the pathways and adorn the buildings. While the lanterns are only lit twice a year (February and August), the shrine’s brilliantly colorful buildings show off their beauty year-round. The white walls, bright vermillion columns, and roofs of cypress wood look stunning set against the surrounding forest. Just when you think the setting couldn’t be more beautiful, your eyes are drawn to the mountain behind Kasuga-taisha. Covered by the sacred, old-growth Kasuga Primeval Forest, the mountain has been protected as a sanctuary for the gods for over a thousand years. Today it serves as home to rare animals and giant Kasuga cedar trees.
Not so rare are the 1,000-plus wild deer, considered sacred messengers of the Shinto gods, you’ll encounter at the shrine and neighboring Nara Park. “The deer are allowed to roam free in the shrines and temples and streets of the city,” said staffer Giulia. “Visitors have to remember that they are actually guests in the deer’s house—and not the other way around.” You’ll also encounter these sacred deer on guided tours of Todaiji Temple in Nara and Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island.
Not to be missed, especially if you are here when the wisteria blooms (late April to early May), is the Shinen Manyo Botanical Garden. Wisteria flowers are so revered in Japan that they are the focus of entire parks and festivals. Our Highlights of Japan: Tokyo to Kyoto tour has dates that will bring you to Kasuga-taisha Shrine at the perfect time to see the wisteria in full bloom.
Did you know? Over 2,000 of Kasuga-taisha Shrine’s garden lanterns, donated by devoted worshippers, are made of stone. But only one of those has the honor of being Japan’s second oldest stone lantern.